The Pentagon said Wednesday it will review discharges for Vietnam War veterans who may have suffered from combat-related stress when they were kicked out of the military.
The decision will allow potentially thousands of Vietnam veterans to ask for an upgrade to "less than honorable" discharges if they can show they suffered from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
The US military now recognizes PTSD as a diagnosable condition but in the Vietnam era, combat-related trauma was not viewed as a medical standard by the Pentagon bureaucracy.
Defense Secretary Chuck Hagel, himself a veteran of the Vietnam conflict who was wounded and decorated for his service, said the move was "the right thing to do for our veterans."
"This new guidance reflects our commitment to those who served our country during times of war many decades ago," he said in a statement.
The decision came after several Vietnam veterans filed a lawsuit arguing that the Defense Department was unjustly denying them honorable discharges even though they had made claims of being diagnosed with PTSD.
The new rules allow veterans of Vietnam as well as other wars to request a change to their discharge papers if there is evidence they have post-traumatic stress symptoms as a result of their time in uniform.
In a memo to the boards that handle records for the various branches of the armed forces, Hagel ordered that "liberal consideration will be given in cases where civilian providers confer diagnoses of PTSD or PTSD-related conditions" and where there is further proof that the disorder existed at the time of service.
But in cases where a soldier was involved in serious misconduct, the boards are to carefully weigh whether PTSD symptoms can be linked to the misconduct, according to Hagel`s memo.
Pentagon officials said the new rules were not meant to automatically grant honorable discharges but to reflect a more contemporary view of mental health problems.
Upgrading a veteran`s paperwork to an honorable discharge from the military would allow a former soldier to receive some benefits such as disability pay. And activists say it would also carry important symbolism for veterans who feel they have been discriminated against for anxiety stemming from their battlefield experiences.